This Hell on Wheels review contains spoilers.
Last week’s Elam-focused episode in hindsight was meant to be an ode to the character. I kept waiting for something or someone from Cheyenne to show up and remind me of the show I was watching, but the only mentions were Jimmy Two Squaws and Charlotte referencing outdated information about Eva and the child she surrendered. I was on guard for most of the episode, not quite looking over my shoulder, because it wasn’t the show viewers have grown accustomed to watching for three seasons: an entire chapter dedicated to Comanche Indians and a rehabilitating freed African American.
Hell on Wheels has a been a cult show since its inception. Would a predominantly Caucasian audience remain loyal and watch the entire hour? The answer was a resounding yes based on select fans who read and respond to this column weekly. Hell on Wheels fans are a sophisticated cult who are able to put the show in chronological perspective. Any expressed uneasiness with last week’s episode is mine alone, and it emanates from the place I was born and who I am. Ghosts of the Southern past be damned, I too, accept the show on its historical timeline.
There’s a funny thing about ghosts for those who believe in their existence. No two are the same, and haunting is specific to a location or in some instances, a bloodline. As I tried and mostly succeeded at quieting the voices rattling around in my head during the previous show, I kept thinking something was afoot. Five weeks into season four, Elam was presumed dead without a scripted closure for Eva, the freedman, and Cullen.
I’m not suspicious by nature, but life has taught me to question certain things. I scoured entertainment and gossip websites for news of either the actor’s sudden illness, schedule conflicts, or unrest on the Canadian set as reason for Elam’s absence in the first few episodes. I found none, but it was bittersweet at episode’s end. I stopped short of doing the George Jefferson celebratory electric slide made famous by the late Sherman Hemsley on The Jeffersons. Elam represented progress on the show as the appointed railroad sheriff. I hoped that he would survive the bear attack if only to see him recovered and return to Cheyenne to join forces with Cullen, Durant, Mickey, Eva, and Louise to rid the town of its newly assembled government henchmen.
I was optimistic as the sun beat down on all of their faces at the close of last week’s episode. The unpopulated landscape and snaking railroad might lead to possibilities. What if Elam doesn’t return to Cheyenne, but built a life and home somewhere in between? If that were to happen, outside forces would undoubtedly encroach upon his new homestead. An isolated existence of this sort might throw viewers back to a previous disconnect when we questioned if Elam was alive. It can be difficult for viewers to separate and categorize emotions for the characters and their story arcs, the real world of actors serving a purpose on a show for a set period, and what might seem abrupt writing and production changes on a show.
Elam’s Cheyenne reentry was uncomfortable to watch and reconcile. I wanted a different homecoming, but such a romantic and therapeutic storyline was last week with the Comanche nurse. I didn’t expect a Broadway musical number from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, however what unfolded left an unsavory taste in my mouth. Certain words, sounds and scenes trigger an internal reaction. Elam as the confused and obstinate slave auctioneer transported me to that unsettling place inside.
Historical and cultural landmines and emotions aside, Elam’s homecoming worked dramatically on a few levels. It was better to have him return to Cheyenne to loved ones and friends than to have crossed over in the wild next to a dead brown bear. I held my breath waiting like Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for that CLICK in Elam’s head to recognize he was home and to stand down. Eva would rush over to him collapsed on the ground or perhaps kneeling, and say, “Nothing here to see people, keep on moving!” Alas, that didn’t happen for reasons unknown to me. Elam’s last hurrah cast him as his former slave self imitating what he’d witnessed before emancipation.
I’ve asked fans and others who’ve never heard of the show why they do and why they wouldn’t watch Hell on Wheels. I think the time period is still too close and raw for many to watch, while others view the show as a dramatic retelling on television. The ghosts of the past remain within reach for potential viewers. Race and class are integral on the show, however my disappointment stems from the loss of a strong character and ally.
Until the moment when Cullen does what he alone thought was best for his friend Elam, I waited for that click in Elam’s head as the blood trickled down Cullen’s forehead. Look into his eyes and down into his soul, find and turn on the light and pull him through the darkness, Cullen. When the mercy had ended, I was filled with unanswered questions, most pressing among them: Why this conclusion?
We may never know, or it might be later revealed that my speculation on schedule conflicts was true and the actor chose to leave the show. For all involved, it was better to have Cullen as judge, jury, and executioner rather than those provisional government misfits filling Elam with bullet holes or at the wrong end of a noose.